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The Beauty of Ugliness

April 1, 2014

I took my students on a weekend retreat at a camp in the northern part of Tennessee, allowing them some time to clear their minds of distractions and their bodies of stress.

I knew they needed it.  I could see the fatigue on Linda’s face  in the classroom; she spent every minute studying for the next Calculus quiz.  I noticed that Mitch was drowsily leaning over his books, as the homework deadlines were taking a toll on his sleep schedule.

Bobby was morose.  Michael was snappy.  Jenny would stare at the white board, slowly losing focus.  I knew that it was time for a break, so at lunch time, I stayed in my classroom and rifled through my desk.  I was going to do a little homework myself.

I dug through some old camp brochures and mailings that had been sent to me over the preceding months, and was pleasantly surprised to find a very nice tri-fold presentation festooned with photos of happy campers frolicking in the swimming1bbb pool, laughing around a campfire pit, even swinging on a rope over a pristine lake.  I picked up the phone and dialed the number.  I introduced myself and mentioned that I was planning to take my students on a retreat.

“Well, we’d love to have you,” said the director.  “The dates you mentioned are all open.”

“Even the second March weekend?” I asked, furiously scribbling on a calendar.  “I need to check about the school’s sports schedule.  Do you have the third weekend in March open.  How about the second weekend in April?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” said the director.  “We have them all open.”

That should have been a hint to me.  But after all, the price was reasonable and the availability couldn’t be beat.  Soon I filled the roster and within three weeks we were heading off to the camp.  The teens were ready for this break.  I was ready.  The chaperones were ready.

As we arrived, we were all chatty, animated and energized.

And shocked.

I mean, really shocked.

The place was a dump.

As I puttered the bus along the pothole-filled road, we drove by swampy fields, decrepit outbuildings, and a mossy, crack-filled swimming pool.

“Whoa,” said Avery,” you weren’t kidding when you said you wanted a rustic setting.”

I coughed and pulled into the closest thing that looked like a driveway.

“Unload the gear while I go in and see about the accommodations,” I said, trying to act as if this was all planned.  “And watch out for the mud holes. There’s one near the doorway that looks to be about a foot deep.”

The director met me at the front of the door, shaking my hand and gesturing.  “Welcome, I’m glad you chose us for your camping experience.”  He waved his hand.  “We’re renovating the place.  This used to be an orphanage, a long time ago.  A really long time ago.”  He looked around at the peeling paint and broken doorway.  “It’ll take a bit of time to clean it up, you know.”

I nodded. “Um, yes, but I was going to take the students swimming, but the pool…”

“Oh, the pool’s out of use,” he waved his hand airily.  “Cracks all through the bottom.  That’s a definite priority for a fix-up.”

“Well, what about the lake?” I asked.

“What lake?” he asked.

“The lake on your brochure,” I said, digging for the paper. “The front of your brochure.  The kid swinging on a rope over a nice lake, with a sunset…”

“Oh, that,” he said, laughing.  “We got those from a photo gallery of other camps.  We wanted to give people an idea of what fun camps could be.”  He looked at my concerned face.  “Now, if you really want a lake, there’s a nice one about ten minutes away from here, down the road a bit…”

I learned a few things that day.

First, always check out your accommodations ahead of time.

Second, even if you don’t, God can do some mighty powerful things with what little there is.

The students bumped and grunted, unloading their gear into the cramped quarters.  I was upset and embarrassed.  This was going to be a disaster.  But…

…then I heard laughter.

I looked up to see Anna and Beth running down the hallway.

“The rooms are so tiny!” yelled Anna.

“This place is so quaint, Dr. Zockoll!” Beth gushed.  “Thanks for taking us here!”

Justin called through the window.  “Look at this old tractor – like from the 1920s or something!”

Mike laughed.  “Yeah!  This is cool!”

I was, you might say, stunned.  I was aiming for mahogany walls, thick bookshelves and a pristine lake.  At least that’s what I thought the students should have – but they weren’t here for that.

Jill, Amanda, Brooke and Chris came in, tumbling and laughing.

“Oooh, does my back hurt,” laughed Chris.

“Yeah,” giggled Brooke, “the porch swing was fun, but we didn’t expect that!”

“What happened?” I asked.

“We were swinging as high as we could get it,” said Brooke. “And the chain snapped!  We all went flying into the bushes!”  They roared with laughter.

“I’ll get that fixed,” said the director.  “Hey, if you all get ready for dinner, my wife will bring out the food in an hour.”

I gathered the students for a Bible study in a garage area that we rigged up to be our meeting room.  Kurt and Bill brought in lamps so that we could see.  “This is fun,” said Bill, looking for an extension cord.  “It’s like an apocalypse and we’re having to scavenge in order to survive.”

“You mean like that video game ‘Fallout?” asked Kurt.

“Well, I was thinking more along the lines of ‘Half Life,” said Bill.

Our study was on the First Thessalonians chapter 4 passage, and I was teaching the about the coming of Christ –  known as the Rapture.  The students were transfixed,  really zoned in on the teaching.

I read aloud.  “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” I put down my Bible and gestured toward the sky.  “That phrase ‘caught up’ is the Greek word harpazo and it means a forceful snatching, a quick grasp.  It means that when Jesus comes back, He’ll take His children in an instant.”

The dinner bell rang.  The students blinked – they were into as deep a concentration as I had ever seen them.

“Okay, that’ll be it for now,” I said.  “After dinner we’ll continue the teaching on the Rapture as we find it in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians.”

We piled into the smallish room that was to be our dining hall.  The students crammed their legs underneath the rough-hewn tables that looked like they were carved straight from a tree with an axe.

“Ow, I got a splinter,” yelled Amanda.  The whole group roared in laughter.  I had to shake my head.  The worse it got, the more the students enjoyed it.  I watched as the director and his wife carried out bowls of mashed potatoes and chicken, and I realized that they were doing the best they could.

God bless them, they were doing the best they could.

And the students were enjoying it.

So why don’t I just shut up and go along with the joy of the moment?  Teach me, God, to be content with what is going on, not what I think should be going on. This could be a powerful weekend …  if I didn’t get in the way.

We prayed and dug into the food.  Oh, the food was good.  The meals became one of the highlights of the camp – corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, barbecue ribs, fresh tomatoes, thick-sliced bread, luscious pies, huge cakes…

After dinner I took the students out to a side field and taught them how to make a campfire.  We separated them out to various fire pits and gave them dry tinder and matches.  They were to make the lean-to fire construction that I taught them.  I heard whoops of delight; some of them had never made a fire in their life.

“Look at me, Dr. Zockoll!” cried Laura, leaning over the flames and adding branches.

“Laura…” I started.

“Do you like how the coals are coming along?” she asked, glancing up at me as she leaned over and added pine cones.

“Yes, but, Laura…” I started again.

“What could be wrong?” she asked.  “I did everything right, didn’t I?”

“Yes, “I said, darting forward,” but you don’t lean right over the flames. Your scarf’s on fire.”  We caught it before there was too much damage.

Oh, it was rustic all right.  There were pools of mud.  There was a barn about to fall down.  There was no playing field or gymnasium or even a basketball hoop.  No hiking trails, no projectors, no stage.

The students loved it.

Loved it.

God was blessing with so little.  But really, was it little?  The lack of “extras” made for a more simplistic camp – one where the students could really concentrate.

That night as we crammed into the meeting room, I was continuing the message about Christ’s imminent return.  “First Corinthians said it will be in the twinkling of an eye, an immediate event, amazing in its quickness,” I said.  “That will start the final events in this earth’s history.   But God’s children will be taken.”

I heard a loud noise from the back of the room.  Ninth-grader Kenny was pushing past students forcefully.  I looked up and saw him barge into the aisle and run – so help me he ran – and dove toward the front toward one of our counselors.

Kenny wanted Jesus.  Right then. Right there.  Right away.

After the meeting I saw an elated Kenny.  Clapping him on the back, I asked him about the sprint down the aisle.

“Oh, that,” he said.  “Well, it hit me that Jesus could come at any second.  I didn’t want Him to arrive before I made a decision, so I ran to get ahead of Him.”  He grinned.  “I’m glad I made the decision.  I’m glad I came to camp.”

And as we packed the bus and pulled away from the campsite, waving to a happy camp director and his wife, I realize the goodness, the true goodness of seeing God work with little so that we could get much out of His Word.

“…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances….”

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